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Doolittle Center acquires historic Lockheed Vega

When Willis Allen Jr. learned that a “stunningly beautiful” 1933 Lockheed Vega in a private collection had gone up for sale after the death of its owner, Allen knew exactly where the airplane belonged, for history’s sake and for the public to enjoy.
The 1933 Lockheed Vega's new home is the Jimmy Doolittle Museum Center. Photo courtesy of Willis Allen.

Allen, a member of the Education Foundation Board of Directors of the Jimmy Doolittle Center at the Nut Tree Airport in Vacaville, California, said he learned that the airplane in the collection in Pennsylvania of the late hotelier John Desmond was one of five Vegas built in that year for Shell Oil Co. 

Jimmy Doolittle, the aviation pioneer who would lead the Doolittle Raid on Tokyo in 1942, earning him the Medal of Honor, rose to the rank of lieutenant general and commanded the Eighth Air Force. In 1933, he was managing Shell Oil’s aviation department. He had flown the Vega, designated as Shell Oil Number 7, on many occasions, Allen said.

The natural solution, Allen said, was for Doolittle’s Lockheed Vega to find its new home in the Doolittle Center’s museum.

Talks between the principals began, meetings followed, and a purchase agreement was reached. It gives the Doolittle Center a three-year timeline for completing its payments on the aircraft, which was appraised at a value of $975,000—roughly half of which remains to be raised through donations, Allen said.  

At a recent VIP rollout event to recognize the airplane’s delivery to Vacaville, aviation luminaries Bob Hoover and Clay Lacy were in attendance, as was Jonna Doolittle Hoppes, the general’s granddaughter, and other Doolittle family members.

Bill and Claudia Allen, board member of the Jimmy Doolittle Museum Center. Photo courtesy of Willis Allen.

Allen, who also collects airplanes and all things aviation related and displays them at the Allen Airways Flying Museum at Gillespie Field in El Cajon, California, was acquainted with Doolittle, and had paid social calls at the Doolittle residence in Santa Monica. He remembers Doolittle, who died in 1993 at age 96, as “a dear man who had time for everybody.”

Allen said he joined the Doolittle Center’s board, chaired by Herm Rowland Sr., chairman of Jelly Belly Candy Co., eager to advance the public’s appreciation and knowledge of the historical figure he was honored to have known.

“I feel like I owe, and I have the opportunity to pay back here a little bit. It’s really cool,” he said.

According to the Heritage Aircraft website, the seven-place Lockheed Vega was powered by a 425-horsepower Pratt and Whitney Wasp radial engine, cruised at 140 miles per hour, and landed at 50 mph. Shell No. 7  was “often flown” by Doolittle, it said.

“Abundant” records were set in Lockheed Vegas, it said, including Amelia Earhart in 1932 becoming “the first woman to make a solo non-stop trans-Atlantic flight in her Lockheed Vega 5B, flying from Harbor Grace, Newfoundland to Culmore, Londonderry, Northern Ireland, in 14 hours, 54 minutes, a total of 2,026 miles.”

The Doolittle Center in Vacaville is a cornerstone of a 14-acre project Allen said is to include a community conference center, event center, restaurant, exhibits, and programs, as described in this video hosted by actor Tom Hanks.

Also located on the Nut Tree Airport are Solano Community College, and Icon Aircraft, manufacturer of a new two-place sport airplane.

Dan Namowitz

Dan Namowitz

Dan Namowitz has been writing for AOPA in a variety of capacities since 1991. He has been a flight instructor since 1990 and is a 35-year AOPA member.
Topics: Aircraft, People

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